Here's a review of a book I very much enjoyed reading. The review will be published in the not-too-distant future in Notes and Queries .
Are postcolonial medievalisms still big news?
Ananya Jahanara Kabir and Deanne Williams (eds), Postcolonial Approaches to the European Middle Ages: Translating Cultures . Pp. xii + 298 (Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature 54). Cambridge, New York, Oakleigh: Cambridge University Press, 2005. £50.00 (ISBN 0 521 82731 0).
Reviewed by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, George Washington University
Postcolonial Approaches to the European Middle Ages offers a substantial contribution to the project of rethinking the medieval period from a multicultural but non-synthetic point of view. The idea of a postcolonial Middle Ages is no longer a new one. The past few years has seen an energetic outpouring of such scholarship by medievalists like Kathleen Biddick, Kathleen Davis, Geraldine Heng, Bruce Holsinger, Patricia Ingham, Sylvia Tomasch and Michelle Warren. They are joined by scholars like Robert Bartlett, R. R. Davies, and John Gillingham – historians who do not (so far as I know) describe themselves as sharing philosophical concerns with Homi Bhabha, Gayatri Spivak, Dipesh Chakrabarty, and Antonio Benitez-Rojo, but whose recent books have been engaged in a similar project of reconfiguring the narratives we tell about the past, stressing contingency and multiple possibilities, rejecting unselfconscious Eurocentrism and teleogy-inducing Anglophilia. For historians as well as literary and art critics, the contours of medieval studies are very different now from their more settled shape of a decade ago.
Kabir and Williams' book arrives at a good time to assess the changes that postcolonial medieval studies have already engendered, to speculate on limitations and blind spots, and to open up possible futures. The editors accomplish this task by gathering some of the usual suspects (Suzanne Conklin Akbari, long known for superlative work combining the best of traditional approaches with newer theoretical concerns; Roland Greene, who helped bring a postcolonial and transnational emphasis to early modern studies), some new voices (James G. Harper, an art historian), and luminaries whose previous work was not explicitly postcolonial but whose essays in Postcolonial Approaches make it clear that they have long been engaged in sympathetic research (Nicholas Howe, Seth Lerer). Even if the pieces gathered in the volume end up being too diverse to be housed comfortably beneath the volume's sub-rubric of "Translating Cultures" -- capacious as that phrase may be -- nonetheless this collection distinguishes itself for the high quality of its writing, the creativity of its critical approaches, and the insight exhibited within each individual piece.
Perhaps a single line from the introduction by Kabir and Williams will yield an adequate hint of what its contributors share in their methods and aims. Examining the Christmas star as it glimmers above the Magi in an illustration from Les très riches heures de Jean, duc de Berry, the editors write that this celestial marvel "radiates alternative interpretive strategies" (5). By focusing upon the crowded, diverse field of signs that composes the illustration, Kabir and Williams demonstrate that despite its pious Christianity the Magi scene cannot be reduced (or translated) into some uncomplex or unambivalent narrative. The sumptuous image radiates wonder, an exhilarating mixture of beauty and dissonance. And it is this noise -- heard when the critic is attentive to alternatives, exclusions -- that the contributors to Postcolonial Approaches seek. Limitations of space preclude my giving a full account of each contribution. To my mind, however, the strongest of the three parts of the book is the opening section, christened "The Afterlife of Rome." As Clare A. Lees and Gillian R. Overing pointed out in their introduction to a special issue of the Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies on "Gender and Empire" (34.1 2004), the early Middle Ages have been inadequately examined from a postcolonial viewpoint (3). The three essays clustered here help remedy that defect, and collectively argue for the importance of Romano-British history in thinking about the anxious belatedness of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. I should also add that the pieces by Nicholas Howe (on the haunting, material as well as figurative, of Anglo-Saxon England by Rome) and Seth Lerer (an awesome meditation on the patterned floor of Heorot and the work of Seamus Heaney) are especially eloquent, even moving: they both seem to hover in a rich space between criticism and poetry. Alfred Hiatt's essay on maps, while solid, seems a bit pale in comparison. The second section, "Orientalism before 1600," gathers an intriguing essay by Suzanne Conklin Akbari on Alexander and the construction of Western imperial identity; an innovative reading of Gower and monstrosity by Deanne Williams; and an examination of changes in the representation of Turks in fifteenth-century art by James G. Harper. "Memory and Nostalgia," the omnibus closing section, includes a smart linking of British India to fantasies of Rome and medieval England (Ananya Jahanara Kabir); an extraordinary reading of medievalist Joseph Bédier as Creole by Michelle Warren; and an essay by Roland Greene on La Celistina as "protocolonial baroque." The volume concludes with an epilogue by Ato Quayson, an Africanist whose serious reflections on what a postcolonial Middle Ages prevents his piece from seeming like mere window dressing or a nervous nod to "real" authority. Indeed, his "Translations and transnationals: pre- and postcolonial" is a strong finish for a consistently strong, thoroughly engaging volume.